By Dale Martens
Baby tarpon react to a hook like their oversized parents; they try to put as much air as possible between themselves and the water. However, they are far more accommodating. When fishing for adults, a great day is 5 fish jumped and 1 landed. With babies, jumping 15 and landing 5 is definitely not out of the question. And the babies aren’t exactly puny – 5 to 10 pounds is a common size.
I am by no means a seasoned tarpon hunter, but over the last few years I’ve managed to visit some of the Yucatan’s premier baby tarpon fisheries. Although not definitive, my impressions might be helpful if a trip is germinating in your brain.
It should be noted that all my trips took place in July or August. Visiting the Yucatan in the heat of summer sounds a bit twisted but it’s actually prime time for baby tarpon.
The gear for baby tarpon is simple – an 8 or 9 weight rod, a floating line, and a reel with a smooth drag. Most baby tarpon will not take you into your backing. Some veteran baby tarpon fishermen recommend stripping them in without putting them on the reel. A decent fly selection would include baitfish patterns, poppers, and Seaducers – all on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. A very functional leader looks like this: 5 feet of 50 lb mono for a butt section, 2 feet of 25 lb mono for the tippet, and 2 feet of 40 lb fluorocarbon as a shock tippet.
Now, here’s a look at some baby tarpon destinations…
Tarpon Cay Lodge in San Felipe (Rio Lagartos) www.yucatanflyfishing.com
San Felipe, about 100 miles west of Cancun, is a sleepy, pleasant village where walking around gives your camera a taste of real Mexico.
The baby tarpon fishing starts after a 5 minute boat ride. It’s mostly blind casting the mangroves off points or in the rios, which are saltwater creeks. Oftentimes, rolling fish provide targets.
Once you’ve shaken the jitters when fishing to babies, San Felipe can give you the opportunity to come unglued in front of much larger fish. A boat ride of an hour or so will take you to a spot offshore where migratory adults up to 100 pounds hang out. This is sight casting to rolling fish over deep water.
Isla del Sabalo at Isla Arena www.yucatanflyfishing.com
If San Felipe is sleepy, then Isla Arena is comatose – in a good way. Even though you are only 100 km north of Campeche, it’s like the edge of the world.
The fishing is very similar to San Felipe with the addition of sight fishing on the flats in front of the mangroves. (N.B. Tarpon are much easier to see than a bonefish.) Some of the guides like to go WAY up the tiniest of creeks. Bring a mosquito repellant and don’t forget to duck under that mangrove branch! I found a Sage bass rod a great tool for such close quarters.
You will likely fly into Merida, which is an incredible colonial city. It’s like being in Europe, but the tarpon are much closer.
Paradise Lodge on the Costa Maya Coast www.tarponparadise.net
Between Chetumal Bay and Espiritu Santos Bay, Paradise Lodge has a breathtaking variety of fishing opportunity.
Baby tarpon are the backbone of this fishery; they hang out in cenote lakes, which are land-locked lagoons connected to the ocean via underground channels. Each day starts out with a truck ride as your boat is trailered to one of these lakes. Bring your casting arm – you’ll blind cast the mangroves like crazy. Nevertheless, you’ll probably see enough tarpon to keep your motivation in high gear. One of the lakes has a good population of both snook and barracuda.
During your stay at Paradise, you’ll probably drive south to sprawling Chetumal Bay to chase bonefish and permit. I caught my only permit in Chetumal Bay. I’d like to say I made a 70 foot cast to a tailing fish but I actually flipped a crab pattern about 30 feet into a HUGE mud. The permit that popped out was VERY small. At dinner that night, I downplayed my catch and was promptly chastised by the lodge owner. “A permit is a permit!” he insisted.
If baby tarpon are the backbone of the Paradise Lodge fishery, then Espiritu Santos Bay is the jewel. It’s a long, pre-dawn drive to the north. Punta Huerrero, an obscenely picturesque fishing village, guards the bay’s entrance. Once your skiff ventures into Espiritu Santos Bay, you’re not on the edge of the world, you’ve actually gone over it!
Very few people fish Espiritu Santos. Its flats are beautiful, wild and abundant, just like its bonefish. Chances are you’ll see permit, too. My guide even pointed out a few wily snook underneath the mangroves. I didn’t believe they were there until he chased them out with his push pole.
Isla Blanca by Cancun www.yucatanflyfishing.com
Cancun, as you probably know, is fueled by thousands of beach and bar-seeking tourists.
However, 30 minutes north of the sunscreen-slathered hordes lies Isla Blanca and its tremendous variety of fishing environments – hidden lagoons, picturesque bays, mangrove tunnels, small flats, large flats. Is your boat careening towards a solid wall of mangroves? Relax, the guide knows exactly where the opening to the other side is. Baby tarpon, a few bonefish, and smallish permit roam all over these waters. The permit, although small, are numerous.
If you want a break from fishing, and perhaps Cancun’s frantic pace, there are loads of guided excursions to Mayan ruins, traditional villages, and cenotes.
Isla Holbox www.holboxtarponclub.com
Isla Holbox is comfortably touristed but in a golf-carts-on-funky-sand-streets sort of way. It is about 60 miles northwest of Cancun; the last part of the journey is onboard a ferry.
Although Holbox is noted for big, migratory tarpon in the open ocean, the backcountry flats and channels in the lagoon behind it have excellent populations of babies. Tired of slinging 500 grain heads on a 12 weight? The babies chase poppers and streamers and put on a great show when connected to an 8 weight. I found sight-fishing for the babies to be excellent.
Another attraction at Holbox is the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks.
Nichupte Lagoon (Cancun) and Campeche
These are a couple of places I have yet to visit. The former is the lagoon directly behind the Cancun hotel strip. The latter is a colonial city.